Using cutting-edge technology that maps molecules, researchers are confirming that soft tissue has been preserved in lots of fossils—not just big dinosaurs like T. rex but also small and large reptiles that lived in water.
Earlier this year, a team in England confirmed the existence of soft skin tissue, known as keratin, in fossilized lizard skin from the USA’s Green River Formation.1 Innovative molecule-mapping technology shows that keratin molecules from the fossilized lizard match the keratin protein in modern lizard skin.
Using similar cutting-edge techniques, a team in Sweden showed that another kind of protein, known as collagen, has survived in the fossilized bone of a large ocean reptile, known as a mosasaur.2
These investigations have satisfactorily demonstrated that biological molecules can survive within fossils.
The challenge for the researchers is that Green River Formation, known for its well-preserved fossil population, is commonly dated at 40 million years or older and that the rock layers where the mosasaur was found are dated at 70 million years. (Fossils are dated according to the presumed age of the rocks in which they are found.) Since the researchers believe these fossils are 50 to 70 million years old, they need to explain how fragile biological molecules can survive so long.
The scientists studying the Green River fossil propose a solution. First, they point out the absence of byproducts from aerobic bacteria (bacteria that require oxygen to live). This shows that the fossil was buried rapidly, sealing it off from any oxygen. Then they suggest that trace metals in the original skin bonded to minerals in the rock and held the biological molecules in place. Even if true, these ideas do not explain how protein molecules could remain intact for millions of years.
The Green River researchers hope their work will “provide insight into the biochemistry of extinct organisms.” But the Green River lizard’s keratin matched modern lizard keratin. This finding suggests that neither the biochemistry nor the lizard has evolved.
A rapidly buried lizard skin in which biomolecules have survived should not surprise scientists who accept the Bible’s account of earth’s history. Like the secular researchers, they are hopeful that the examination of preserved soft tissues such as these will improve our understanding of the fossilization process.
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